The Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle

This was such an odd book. A strange mix of deeply-researched history, fictionalized snippets of biographical storytelling and lyrical poetry, it’s definitely a very different sort of history book. I found it at times simultaneously fascinating, confounding, tedious, beautiful and illuminating. Ultimately, it was a book in serious need of editing though not without its charms.

Ehle is an interesting guy. A novelist best known for stories set in the Appalachian south, he is known as the “father of Appalachian literature.” Born in North Carolina, he served as a rifleman in WWII before coming home to study at UNC Chapel Hill. He would go on to write a series of historical fiction novels set in Appalachia and two of them were even adapted into feature films. He also wrote non-fiction that primarily centered on the region he lived in. An advisor to LBJ, he was an activist involved in civil rights, education and poverty reduction.

In Trail of Tears, Ehle takes a novelistic approach, focusing his narrative on the life of Major Ridge, a Cherokee tribal leader and lawmaker. We witness Ridge’s birth in the years just before the Revolution and follow his life story from his early teenage years as a warrior, hunter and athlete to his middle years as a rising star both within the Cherokee nation and throughout the U.S. He fought with Andrew Jackson during the Creek Wars and was a hero at Horseshoe Bend before going on to become the leader of political faction that advocated for succumbing to the federal government’s removal policy of uprooting Native American tribes to resettle west of the Mississippi.

It was interesting to see the early military battles from Ridge’s perspective as I had previously read about them in both What Hath God Wrought as well as Remini’s The Life of Andrew Jackson. In fact, I found that many of these seemingly minor events that dotted the Indian removal sections of What Hath God Wrought made appearances here. For instance, the imprisonment of the Christian missionaries in the case of Worcester V. Georgia, which made a brief appearance in What Hath God Wrought was brought to life in detail here as we came to know Samuel Worcester as an ally and friend of Elias Boudinot at the Phoenix newspaper before the famous trial took place.

Unfortunately, it’s detail that brings this book down. While the first half of the book reads well and is generally absorbing throughout, the second half of the book (particularly the last third) suffers significantly from an inordinate amount of superfluous detail that neither serves the story itself or illuminates the broader themes. At numerous points, Ehle serves up page after page of long passages of correspondence between soldiers, generals, government officials and tribal leaders that would have been much better used in moderation. Almost every entry has something to offer, but rather than truncate each passage to its most salient content, Ehle instead provides us with long blocks of correspondence (rendered in minuscule, dense text) loaded with excess detail. It feels lazy and gives the impression that by the end of the book, Ehle was losing steam and just dumping research on us to fatten the page count.

The book also suffers from a lack of consistent tone. Ehle at times writes like a typical academic historian, at other times like a wild-eyed, mystic poet of the South. Though sometimes charming, Ehle clearly has a passion for his subject, it more often felt dizzying. It reminded me at times of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a wonderful book that also at times suffered from the author’s hallucinatory flights of poetic prose that often went on a page or two too long. Still, it’s these moments that also most-likely endear as many readers as it turns off. I enjoyed it in places, but at times it felt a bit much.

Despite Ehle’s obvious affection for his subjects, you have to credit him for not succumbing to the lure of hagiography. He never comes across as wide-eyed to the point of propagating myths. He details the Cherokees’ use of black slaves (they owned thousands of them), the complicity of the shamans in the deaths of many on the journey Westward, the hypocrisy and corruption of many of the tribal leaders, and even at times defends certain actions of the U.S. government during one of our nation’s most obviously shameful hours. That kind of writing is evidence of a sober historian seeking truth, not just a writer trying to sell books and tug at heart strings. And ultimately, it’s that sort of quality that makes Trail of Tears a worthy read despite its flaws.